People name places. In so doing they express something about their life, culture, history and superstitions. Once established, place names endure and impart uniqueness to a locality.
Derivation of place names
Place names are derived from words and word roots taken mostly from everyday language. In the Highlands most place names are particularly descriptive of the shape, colour and size of landscape features. But some owe more to the folklore, culture and customs of the local inhabitants than to the landscape.
Naming places through the ages
To Bronze Age villagers 4,000 years ago the sound 'aub' denoted 'life-sustaining water'; it survives in 'abhainn' or 'Avon' (river). Picts enjoyed hunting boar, as found in the Pictish name 'Air-cardden' or 'Urquhart' (at the thicket). Colonising Scots from Ireland brought Gaelic names, such as 'Achadh na seileach' or 'Achnashellach' (willow field). Names like 'Sild-vik' or 'Shieldaig' (herring bay) identify areas of Norse settlement. 'Beau-lieu' or 'Beauly' (beautiful place) owes its name to medieval Norman French. Jemimaville and Fort Augustus show the 18th century English influence.
'Colour coded' place names
Gaelic place names frequently describe the feature's colour. Uaine (green), fionn (white), gorm (blue/green), glas (grey/blue), dearg (red) are among those most commonly used - e.g. Loch an Uaine, Fionn Bheinn, Cairngorm, Ghlas Bheinn, Beinn Dearg,. 'Breac' (speckled), as in Beinn a Bhreac or Ben Bhrackie, is especially descriptive of a heathery hillside like speckled trout.
'Working' place names
The working environment too finds expression in place names. 'Baile na gobhainn' or 'Balnagowan' means the blacksmith's village. 'Achadh-na-Caraidh' or 'Achnacarry' (field of the fish-trap) points to the presence of a fishing community, Cnoc na Caorach (sheep's knoll) to sheep farming.
Place names referring to nature
References to trees, plants and animals, perhaps now extinct, are common - e.g. Gleann Fhiodhaig (valley with wild-fig shrubs), Creag na h-Iolaire (eagle rock), Allt Ghiubhais (burn of the pine wood), Coire laogh (deer calfs' hollow).
Place names and folklore
Christian missionary routes may be traced through names like Clachàn Ma-Ruibhe, site of Maolrubha's church at Loch Carron. Even the fairies can't keep away with Sithean Mor and Sithean Beag, two 'fairy hills' in Gairloch.
While derivations are usually straightforward, some are lost in the mists of time. The Torridon peaks of Slioch, Beinn Eighe and Baosbheinn have all been subject to varying interpretations. But does that not add to the mystery of the Highlands?
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
Withers, Charles W.J.
'Authorizing Lanscape: "Authority", Naming and the Ordnance Survery's Mapping of the Scottish Highlands in the Nineteenth Century'
Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 24, no. 4 (Oct., 2000), pp 532-54
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